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"I don’t think health care is a luxury or a privilege, it’s a basic human right”

13 Jun 2018

New Zealand nurse Vanessa Cramond knows well the toll of war on the health of a country’s population. Here, Vanessa talks about her career in emergency humanitarian response, which includes 10 years of field experience with Médecins Sans Frontières.

How did you come to work in humanitarian aid?

“I was a registered nurse, specialised in working with people living with HIV both in New Zealand and the UK. I also worked with several development and academic HIV organisations in Nigeria and Botswana. Then in 2006, I joined the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) HIV project in Zimbabwe and have never really looked back. Over the years I’ve worked increasingly in acute emergencies – Chad, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and the Mediterranean Refugee Response.” 

 

Can you describe your role?

“I have worn many hats with MSF, both in the field and back at headquarters in Europe. For the last seven years I have worked with the Emergency Support Desk in Amsterdam as the Medical Emergency Manager. Our small team of emergency specialists use experience and leadership to help MSF programmes respond to acute crises. We support existing project teams and get new projects off the ground.”

"My role has been to direct our medical and public health response. Namely, addressing the health priorities for the populations in danger, and looking at whether we need to establish new medical activities or whether we can re-prioritise existing ones"

What has this involved?

“My focus has largely been on acute displacements and refugee crises, from Syria, Iraq and surrounding countries to places like South Sudan with the eruption of major civil war. My role has been to direct our medical and public health response. Namely, addressing the health priorities for the populations in danger, and looking at whether we need to establish new medical activities or whether we can re-prioritise existing ones. The emergency team assume responsibility for direct management of the programmes and spend a lot of time on the ground to ensure we are doing the very best we can to provide meaningful healthcare for the population.”

Have you seen any changes in emergency response to mass displacement?

“If you look back to the 1980s and 1990s, most acute displacements MSF responded to were on the African continent – people fleeing from conflict, civil war, or other violence that forced people to cross borders or be displaced within their own country. This remains a huge part of what we do.

However, in the wake of the Syrian crisis, population displacement in contexts such as Jordan, Turkey, Yemen and Iraq presents whole new challenges. These countries once had functioning health systems, with population health comparable to Australia and New Zealand. In these contexts, we must address both the direct and immediate consequences of war, and respond to the complete disruption of established health care: children who are no longer being vaccinated; people who were living with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or epilepsy who rely on regular medication; different expectations and understandings; different access to technology. We are constantly questioning and adapting in order to meet the needs of the people we’re currently treating and not just replicate what we have done in the past.”

"I don’t think health care is a luxury or a privilege, it’s a basic human right"

Why did you choose a career in emergencies?

“I think for many of us, we trained as nurses to help people at times of crisis, and working in humanitarian medical settings for me is the perfect intersect: I don’t think health care is a luxury or a privilege, it’s a basic human right.”

 

What would you say to someone pursuing a similar career path?

“There is no way you can ever be really ‘’ready'' to embark on this type of career path. The learning curve will always be steep and that’s part of the challenge. But there are lots of ways to feel more equipped for when you get to the field. I travelled to developing countries; worked in specialist areas of acute patient care including infectious diseases, general medicine, community care, emergency medicine; graduated with a Diploma in Tropical Nursing; and studied nutrition and humanitarian courses online.”
 

 

FIND OUT MORE

We're looking for emergency doctors and senior nurses with emergency management experience to work in the field. To find out more out more about working in humanitarian crises and MSF’s global response, you can watch our MSF emergencies webinar

 

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